In honour of International Women’s Day on 8 March, some of SA’s most famous faces pledged to become better men, and we at Men’s Health stood right behind them. Months later and with gender-based violence at critically high rates, #TheBetterManProject is more important now than ever.

Our goals? To be honest, to start talking about where we’re getting it wrong, and to be willing to change. We have to take a long, hard look at what men do, and start taking some responsibility – for ourselves, and for others.

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“As men, generally, we tend to be painted with the same brush; and more often than not, a lot of men will push back – as opposed to thinking about ‘How am I complicit?’ or ‘Can I make a difference?’. It’s all good to defend ourselves; but just because we’re not necessarily involved, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not complicit in one way or another,” explains DJ Fresh.

We’ve all seen the #MeToo campaign; and with so many women coming forward to share their experiences of sexual assault, abuse or violence, it’s more important than ever not to blame the victim. “I watched the R Kelly documentary, and I hate him, despise him,” says Siv Ngesi, South African actor, comedian, TV presenter, and the brains behind The Better Man Project.

“But there was a piece of me that was going, ‘Why the fuck were they there? Why was a 14-year-old there with a grown man?’ And then I had to call myself out, and go, ‘No! You’re blaming the victim.’

“And that’s part of the problem. Even when I’m alone, I have to call myself out on that part. I think sometimes it creeps out… and it’s about making sure that we don’t blame the victim; that we don’t ask, ‘Why was she there?’, because she can be where the fuck she wants to be.”

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“There’s been a whole lot of cases I’ve seen where women got raped, and the guy’s reasoning was that the girl wasn’t dressed appropriately, she was dressed in a way that ‘seduced’ the guy. And that’s wrong,” says Akani Simbine, South African Olympic sprinter. Because if it was down to the way women dress, the incidence of rape would decrease in winter; in countries where women wear more clothing, fewer rapes would occur. But in reality, there’s only one person responsible for violence, only one person who can prevent rape – and that’s the perpetrator.

“So when we’re talking about women abuse, and someone chirps in, ‘Oh but what about the women who beat men up?’ – then you don’t get it. Nobody said men don’t get abused. But if you don’t understand that women are under siege; that women don’t feel safe; that a lot of women won’t walk the streets after a certain time, because they’re scared of us – that is the problem. And if you’re quicker to say that ‘women beat men up too’, then you don’t get it, and we need to fix that too,” explains DJ Fresh.

“It’s easy for us as men to be able to look at rapists, and go, ‘Look at those scum of the earth.’ But if you think about it, and you really dig deeper, we are part of that rape culture, and that whole culture has bred these people, these human beings. And it’s quite difficult to say, ‘I am part of the problem,’” admits Siv.

But the problem isn’t just about the headline-making crimes. It’s about the ‘little’ things. It’s about the catcalling, the whistling, the mansplaining, the gaslighting, the degrading names, the slut-shaming, and everything in between. They all create a society that’s allowed injustices against women to flourish, and go unchecked – and unpunished – for far too long.

“I wanted many people who have influence to say these kinds of things, and how they’re willing to improve and how they’re willing to change,” says Siv. When he’s not on stages and TVs across SA, you can find him on the rugby field. “I play rugby, one of the most beautiful, gentlemanly sports you’ll ever come across. Recently, I played rugby for eight weeks in America – with a gay/ inclusive rugby team. And only when I played for them did I realise how toxic rugby can be when I’m just around men.”

Why is this? The idea that sport breeds aggression is one that’s backed up by science. Research has shown that men who participate in organised sports show more aggressive behaviour not just on the field, but everywhere else too. Studies also reveal that athletes hold more positive attitudes toward violence than non-athletes; probably, in part, due to masculine gender norms such as aggression, inexpressiveness, success, competition and dominance over women that are established in sports teams. But it’s not just in men’s actions; this aggression is evident even in something that seems so small: words.

“We use words like ‘let’s rape them’, ‘man up’, and ‘stop being a little pussy’, ‘stop being such a girl’ – which I have used continuously, and it’s just unacceptable,” admits Siv. “And that’s definitely a huge problem in our society. A lot of my environments are very toxic. I objectify women: I’ve seen a lady wearing a short dress and I’ve commented, I’ve made comments to my friends, I’ve stared too long. And in my environment, that’s socially acceptable.”

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A 1999 study from the University of South Florida found that certain types of violence were more common in athletic environments, and that they were perceived as more socially acceptable. In South Africa alone, athletes such as Joseph Ntshongwana, Bob Hewitt and Dion Taljard have been tried and convicted of sexual assault and abuse.

And then, of course, there’s the reputation athletes have of being womanisers. This is something Siv knows all too well. “I think, doing what I do and being a ‘personality’, it’s an unsaid thing that I can do things that other guys can’t, and I can get away with it. Which I exploited, for many years. There’s a fine, fine line, and I’m glad that many men have been called out,” he says.

“I feel like it’s people who have influence, not just athletes. People who have influence take advantage of women, and feel like they’re able to say, ‘Okay, I’m a person of influence, and you’re going to respect me and you’re going to do what I want because I am this person, I feel like I have a right to do anything,’” says Akani. “I think just having a bit of that influence and having a bit of that stardom makes them feel like they have a right to women – and it shouldn’t be like that.”

With the Harvey Weinstein case and others coming to light, and showing how people with influence use their power to abuse and assault women, it’s important for men to acknowledge their position of power in society. But why is it so difficult for men to take responsibility? “I think they feel like if they take responsibility, they lose their masculinity,” says Akani.

“It takes a lot for you to admit that you’re in a position of power. It takes a lot to admit that you have an unfair advantage over someone else. It does take a lot, because you feel like someone is bashing you entirely. It’s a great, great process to go, ‘I messed up,’” says Siv.

Akani has been forced to bear witness to the challenges women in South Africa face every day. “For me, there are things that I’ve seen in my immediate family: my aunt getting abused, my cousin was abused.” In fact, every eight hours on average in South Africa, a woman dies at the hands of an intimate partner.

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Research shows that we have one of the highest rates of femicide in the world – right here, in our own country, more women are killed by a former or current intimate male partner than in any other country in the world. And the problem extends far beyond the physical abuse.

“We tend to think that just because she isn’t black and blue, ‘I don’t abuse her’,” says DJ Fresh. The radio host is the first to admit he’s not perfect, and has made mistakes in the past. “I used to have a temper myself. I used to argue with my wife all the time. My son saw us arguing, and I was in a rage. He was three at the time; and when he was six, he reminded us about that day. That’s when I realised that my temper was a serious problem.”

Aggression towards your partner is one of the signs of emotional abuse. There are others: controlling what she says or does, jealousy, criticising her, cutting her off financially. “If you treat someone [as] less than what you want to be treated like as a person, then you’re abusing them. If you think of her as some child who needs to be put in her place, then you’re abusing her,” says DJ Fresh.

When he looks back at his younger self, Fresh feels uneasy about the number of times he laughed at inappropriate jokes or actions. “When we were in primary school, we used to play a lot of games on the playground. At that stage in puberty, girls are developing breasts, and some of the boys would think it was funny to grope them. And we would laugh about it. Sometimes the girls would giggle, and the boys would think, ‘Oh, maybe she likes it.’ But often, I think, we can’t tell the difference between a nervous giggle and an eff off giggle. A lot of the time we laugh because we’re part of a gang, and everyone else thinks it’s funny, and we get caught up in that. But your inner voice is never wrong. If you feel uneasy about it, then it’s because it’s wrong.”

“There are subtle things that you forget you might also be guilty of, and it’s important to remember that,” says Maps Maponyane, TV presenter and entertainer. Growing up, Maps and his mother were inseparable. At lunch with his mother and her friends, he often heard about the difficulties they faced in their relationships. He vowed to always treat women with respect. But even the best of us make mistakes.

“I’m a very affectionate person, so I love hugging people. I remember, once, meeting someone for the first time; and without thinking about it, I just went in for the hug. To me it wasn’t anything; but to her, it was a big deal. She told me she didn’t like being touched – especially by a man she didn’t know,” explains Maps.

She’s not alone. A joint study conducted by the UK’s Oxford University and Aalto University in Finland found that the majority of women objected to being touched by strangers. They spoke to 1 300 women across several countries, and found that the only body part women were comfortable with strangers touching was their hands.

“I felt really shitty about the whole thing afterwards,” says Maps. “I realised that I shouldn’t assume that it’s okay for me to hug someone. You have to ask before entering someone’s personal space. And it sounds silly, but it’s not. You have to respect someone’s boundaries. You don’t know what someone has gone through, what kind of trauma they’ve experienced, or how inappropriately they’ve been touched in the past.”

Being accountable for his actions is the only way Maps knows he can be a better person. “You know, you don’t have to be perfect; but the onus is on you to address your mistakes when you slip up. Be accountable, and atone for your mistakes.”

One of the ways men can learn to be accountable for their actions is by continuously having discussions about how their actions could hurt women, whether it’s by invading someone’s personal space, catcalling or mansplaining. “More people need to be aware of what it means to be a toxic male. It’s not always some massive dick – it can be the nicest guy, it can be the most normal, stand-up guy who’s doing it. Gaslighting is something men do until they’re called out for it. So really, it’s about addressing your actions; allowing yourself to look back, and realising your mistakes. The most important thing is wanting to engage.”

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Interestingly, research from the University of Zurich found that women’s brains reward them for being nicer, while men’s brains reward them for being selfish. Another study found that young people tend to be selfish; but with age, they become more aware and altruistic. This continuous growth with age and knowledge is something that many of our icons touched on. “I continually make mistakes, and I try and alter my mindset and how I think. It’s just a continuous fight, and it’s just about self-improvement. I think no one is asking men to be perfect,” says Siv.

Francois van Coke, front man of Fokofpolisiekar and Van Coke Kartel, shares these sentiments. “You know… for me, no one’s perfect. [But] I can be a better man all the time. I’ve actually sung about that before. It’s like a New Year’s resolution, and a new week’s resolution. So I don’t think there’s anything wrong if people expect you to be better, because I want to be a better person. I want to be a better man to my wife. I want to be a better father. I think that’s a continuous thing for me to work on, and to make part of my daily thought process.”

“I think I’ve made many mistakes in my life. I think I put my wife through terrible hardships in my youth. We’ve been together since I was 21. I was a young dude, and I was just not being a good boyfriend, for a very long time; and I think that was kind of part of my youth,” says Francois. Speaking of his turning point, he credits it to ‘growing up’, and acknowledges he doesn’t like talking about his past because he’s embarrassed about it. “I think it was multiple things. I think I got older. I changed. There were a lot of personal changes in my life that happened, with regard to…” He pauses to think. “How do I put this diplomatically? With regard to my partying – it was too much. I turned the taps down quite a lot on that, and I think that kind of changed a lot of things in my personal life. And I think that made me focus, and realise what I have in my relationship.”

“When I was younger, and starting to play professional sport,” says Faf du Plessis, SA cricketer and captain of the Proteas, “obviously, you get to move around circles where the lifestyle of being a professional cricketer is something that comes with success, fame and celebrity status.

“And obviously, with that comes the option of having women around. I could’ve been a better man in that part of my life,” Faf admits. “My mistake back then was that I didn’t value commitment as much as I do now.”

His turning point was when while they were engaged, his fiancée (now his wife) asked him to go to counselling with their pastor, to explore what to expect from marriage. He committed to his faith, and it made him aware of all the things he needed to change in order to be a better man – commitment being one of them.

And it was only while watching 13 Reasons Why, shortly after his daughter was born, that he realised just how bad things you and your mates think are funny or harmless can actually be. “Guys tend to lie a lot about who they sleep with, because they want to act cool in front of their mates. And you never know what impact that will have on that girl, her mental state, what she goes through – whether it’s at school, university, or even in a workplace.

“That’s not right; that’s not going to add value to that girl’s life. It’s important that guys realise that what you say or what you do can actually have a massive impact on someone’s life, not just in that moment but going forward, and [in] how they view men, how they view relationships.”

So what can you do when you find yourself in a situation like that? For Faf, it’s simple. “When you hear someone speaking in that way to girls, you must put a stop to it straight away, because that is actually what you’re supposed to do: speak well, treat girls well, respect them.

“And If you think it might be courageous to say something, it’s not; it’s actually what you’re supposed to do in that moment. You’re not cowardly if you do it – it’s cowardly the other way, if you just go along. I would encourage even young guys to say, ‘No, that’s not how you speak to girls or speak to women, or treat them.’

“For men, if another man tells you something that you shouldn’t do… at the time, they’ll probably mock it, or laugh it off. But I promise you, it will hit the mark eventually. A guy will walk away from it, and – maybe not right then in that moment will he acknowledge it, but somewhere in the next 10 or 15 minutes, or in an hour – he’ll think, ‘Yus, maybe that wasn’t the right thing to say.’”

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“I’m just thrilled that we’re in a time where people are compelled to have these conversations about how you look at women, what you say to women, how you talk about women, how you need to treat women,” says comedian Marc Lottering.

All the men we’ve spoken to in this campaign have agreed that the only way for us to move forward is to hold other men accountable for their actions. Many agree that we need to call out problematic behaviour when we see it. But Marc recognises that this won’t always be simple.

“In terms of the way men are conditioned, I don’t think it’ll be easy for them to say, ‘I don’t like what you have said.’ I think what will happen is that at first, men will just not respond with a smile or smirk like they used to. So when you’re in a circle of guys, and someone says something you’re not comfortable with – long gone are the days when you could just laugh it off and change the topic. You need to actually show that what has been said is not okay, and you can do this by not laughing or smiling.”

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“A lot of work needs to be done. And this is something that affects everybody. A woman who hurts, a woman who cries – it’s not about your standing in life, or where you fit in. Pain is pain, disrespect is disrespect. It’s a conversation that we need to have with everyone.”

Marc works with school kids, and he believes that conversations like this should be had with them from a young age. Science backs him up. Psychologist Albert Bandura developed the Bobo Doll experiments, in which children were observed to mimic the behaviour of adults. The children would watch how adults played with toys, and then copy that behaviour. The theory Bandura developed, called Social Learning Theory, extends to other interactions that children witness.

“The other day I was in a coffee shop, and these three men were sitting at a table when a woman walked past. And I watched the three of them ogle and stare at her. These men were are all in their forties or fifties, and I shuddered to think what behaviour they were passing on to their kids.

“The more I think about it, the more I think that we should speak to young boys about it; because if we teach them in grade six that these things are wrong, and talk about these issues, we would raise more well-rounded men,” says Marc.

*Photographs by Byron Keulemans, Paul Samuels & depositphotos

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